How Ford’s Ontario Line plan came together in just three months — with secrecy, a shifting route and a consultant

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How Ford’s Ontario Line plan came together in just three months — with secrecy, a shifting route and a consultant


On an April morning last year, Premier Doug Ford stood on the platform of a GO rail maintenance facility in south Etobicoke and redrew Toronto’s transit plans.

As a throng of reporters watched from the opposite platform, Ford unveiled a map of the rail projects he said his new government would build, overriding the priorities that had been agreed to by his predecessor and Toronto city council.

The most striking thing on Ford’s map was the Ontario Line, a surprise $11-billion project that would replace council-approved plans for a relief line subway, and which the premier described as the “crown jewel” of his proposed $28.5-billion network expansion.

The day of Ford’s April 10, 2019 announcement, few people outside the provincial government could say where the Ontario Line plan had come from. There had been no reports published to support the project, and no public debate on whether it was a good idea.

But a cache of more than 5,600 pages of internal Metrolinx documents reveals the Ontario Line owes its origins to a private consultant, who pitched the concept to the agency’s CEO in January 2019. Just three months later, it was the Ford government’s top transit priority.

The documents, which are emails and reports the Star obtained through a freedom of information request, are heavily redacted. Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, has censored nearly 4,000 pages, claiming the important transit planning discussions they capture fall under exemptions to freedom of information legislation.

But even incomplete, the documents provide the clearest behind-the-scenes picture yet of how Metrolinx upended years of Toronto transit planning in just three months in early 2019.

The documents also show how Metrolinx planned to counter expected opposition to the Ontario Line plan, and that the provincial agency was determined to keep the project a secret until Ford could announce it at the high-profile media event the day before his government tabled its first budget. By that time, aspects of the project, including where a key section of its route would run, had yet to be finalized.

Metrolinx stands by its work on the Ontario Line, which it pitches as an improvement to the relief line subway. Like the old project, the Ontario Line would divert riders off the TTC’s overburdened Line 1 subway, but would be roughly twice as long, stretching about 15.5 kilometres from Exhibition GO station to the Ontario Science Centre, and serve more riders.

It projects that by operating the Ontario Line’s smaller trains as frequently as every 90 seconds, it could carry up to 34,000 passengers in peak directions per hour, slightly fewer than the TTC subway. About 389,000 people are expected to use the line every day, compared to 206,000 for the relief line.

The agency says it advanced the project quickly because of the urgent need to expand Toronto’s network, and it was able to move fast because of previous work that had been done on the relief line.

But some at Metrolinx told the Star they were concerned the Ontario Line was rushed to meet political deadlines. One former agency official who had direct knowledge of the project and spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about their former employer, said “the timelines for it couldn’t follow any of Metrolinx’s standard processes.”

Doug Ford has always been clear about his top transit priority: build more subways. In the months before he was sworn in as premier in June 2018, he pledged to move fast to get new subways built, and to pass legislation uploading Toronto’s subway network to the province.

By November 2018, before the province had entered formal upload talks with the city, Metrolinx was marching to the beat of Ford’s drum. Although the agency is an arms-length organization, it’s overseen by the Ontario minister of transportation and its priorities align with those of Queen’s Park.

According to the emails obtained by the Star, by Nov. 19, 2018, Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster had convened a group to carry out Ford’s mission. Literally called the “Building Subways Quicker” committee, the group was overseen by the most senior officials at Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario, and tasked with delivering GTA subway projects as “quickly and efficiently as possible.”

The committee was to pay particular emphasis to the relief line subway, the project that would soon be transformed into the Ontario Line.

How that transformation occurred owes much to a transit consultant most Torontonians have never heard of: Michael Schabas.

A Harvard-educated transportation planner and owner of a U.K.-based consultant firm, Schabas, 63, has a colourful resume that includes leading roles in major international rail projects such as London’s Docklands Light Railway and Vancouver’s SkyTrain.

He’s also been involved with bids to buy rail companies in Hungary, Estonia and Malawi, and studied the potential for Uzbekistan Railways to attract tourism. For two years in the 1980s, he was the chief of rapid transit planning for Honolulu.

While not technically on Metrolinx staff, since 2014 he’s held a contract position at the agency as a rail expert, and played a significant role in GO Transit expansion plans.

Schabas has a history of deviating from Toronto transit orthodoxy. While TTC and city planners have long supported the relief line subway as the city’s top transit priority, Schabas had been critical of the project.

The relief line was “not worthwhile, costing more than it delivers,” he wrote in a 2013 report for a think tank.

But by the end of 2018, he was revisiting that position. In December, Verster asked him to review an analysis by another consultant who argued the relief line plan council had been pursuing was out of date.

In response, Schabas drafted a paper called “Improving the DRL (Downtown Relief Line)” and distributed it to Metrolinx officials.

What was in the report isn’t clear. Metrolinx has redacted every word in the versions provided to the Star. Schabas declined to comment for this story.

But it’s clear Schabas believed he’d found a way to improve the relief line.

“So — having been dismissive of the (relief line), I now think that, re-crafted, it can be a great project,” he wrote in a Jan. 3, 2019 email to Verster, attaching the report.

Verster echoed his enthusiasm, and said Metrolinx would “build the messaging and business case” for the new project around Schabas’ report.

Schabas was tasked with leading a team to revamp the relief line, and by the end of the month he was firming up plans for what would become the Ontario Line.

In a draft presentation circulated to Metrolinx officials Jan. 31, he outlined his vision for what at that point he referred to as a “downtown express metro.”

The presentation argued Toronto transit construction had stalled in the 1970s due to the TTC and city’s preference for expensive underground tunnelled subways.

Meanwhile, cities such as Vancouver and London had adopted new technology in the form of smaller, lighter trains running on above-ground tracks “that cost half as much as underground.”

“Paris, Montreal, and more than 40 other cities have now adopted this approach. But not Toronto,” the presentation said.

Taking lessons from those other cities, Schabas proposed building a new transit line that would use lighter vehicles than TTC subways. That would enable the trains to climb steep grades and run on elevated structures, allowing the new line to be built above ground in some sections.

Using above-ground construction that’s cheaper than tunnelling, the new project could be longer than the underground relief line subway, and serve more people.

Exactly when the modified relief line subway was renamed the “Ontario Line” is unclear, but the earliest reference in the emails is from a Feb. 20, 2019 meeting between Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario (IO).

IO president Ehren Cory, wasn’t a fan of the new name, and argued for keeping the relief line label.

“I still must say that I do not like our rebranding exercise,” Cory wrote in an email that day.

He argued, “the downtown relief line as a concept has existed for nearly a decade in Toronto and almost everyone in the city knows what that means … I think the odds are higher that we confuse people.”

Verster sought to assure him. “Just a working title for now!” he replied. The name stuck, however.

On Feb. 26, Verster presented the new concept to the premier, who gave it the green light. Verster reported to Metrolinx and IO officials that day that the meeting “went really well” and they could move ahead. But he swore his colleagues to secrecy. “Strict confidentiality applies, do not talk about it,” he cautioned.

It was a warning he would repeat as the day of Ford’s announcement approached.

On March 26, 2019, some high-level details of the proposal were revealed to the public when a pair of letters provincial transit officials sent to the city were posted to a public council agenda.

The next morning, Verster wrote an email telling colleagues to “make absolutely sure” everyone involved in the project “knows that this is massively confidential.” The words “STATE SECRET” were in all caps in the subject line.

Two days later, Erin Moroz, the Metrolinx official in charge of transit extensions, took the unusual step of sending an email to senior Metrolinx employees asking them to supply the name, title and organization of every person who had a copy of the Ontario Line map by the end of the day, in an apparent attempt to be able to identify the source if the plan got out.

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“There is fear about a possible leak,” Schabas wrote later that day.

As the day of Ford’s transit announcement approached, Metrolinx devised a communications strategy to win support for the Ontario Line and the other provincial transit projects, which is typical for the agency when announcing new plans.

The emails show Metrolinx was bracing for opposition to the new transit program, and was sensitive to the perception it had been cooked up in secret.

In a draft strategy prepared March 27, 2019, an agency communications manager listed the perception the Ontario Line and other provincial projects had been planned “in the back room” or on the “back of a napkin” among issues it would have to address.

The day before Ford’s announcement, there was a leak, but this one was intentional in an apparent attempt to generate positive coverage.

According to a post-event analysis by Metrolinx, the night before the premier’s big reveal the government provided details to the Toronto Sun. The agency noted the tone of the Sun story “was positive with front page coverage.”

The documents also show that on the day Ford stood up at the front of the press conference and presented the line on a simplified map — and touted the $11 billion price tag — Metrolinx was still reviewing substantially different potential routes.

Ford’s map suggested the Ontario Line’s central section would essentially follow the route of the old relief line, running east from downtown along Queen Street East and Eastern Avenue, before turning north up Pape Avenue.

Maps included in documents dated both before Ford’s announcement and after suggest Metrolinx was considering a different route for the Ontario Line’s central section that was never made public.

It would have taken the Ontario Line east over the Don River on an elevated structure that would then have crossed over GO Transit’s Lakeshore East corridor and curved south towards Lake Shore Boulevard, before turning back north and entering into a tunnel near Eastern and Pape avenues. The tracks wouldn’t emerge until O’Connor Drive roughly four kilometres to the north, just south of the Don River Valley.

A map of a version of that alignment was included in a draft of the business case for the Ontario Line as late as June 3.

But in July, Metrolinx released a detailed business case for the Ontario Line that showed a different route. Instead of going as far east as Eastern and Pape, the tracks would run through GO’s Lakeshore East corridor from the Don River to a point just north of Gerrard Street.

Metrolinx is now pursuing the GO corridor option.

Last June, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives passed legislation uploading responsibility of new GTA transit projects to the province, and Queen’s Park is pushing ahead with the Ontario Line. Its pursuit of the project has major repercussions for the city’s crowded transit network.

Line 1 is expected to reach capacity by about 2031, and a new route downtown is urgently needed. At the time of Ford’s announcement municipal officials had spent three years advancing relief line planning, and hoped to begin early construction work as soon as 2020, and complete it by 2029. Metrolinx says the Ontario Line could be completed as early as 2027, but many experts feel that’s not realistic.

Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said it was appropriate for Metrolinx’s CEO to recommend to the premier replacing the relief line with the Ontario Line just two months after a consultant had pitched the idea.

“Given the importance of this project and the pressing need to provide relief to the rapid transit network in Toronto,” the agency performed “an exhaustive amount of work” over a “a short period of time to advance the project as quickly as possible,” she said.

Aikins added Metrolinx was able to move fast in part because “there was a great deal of information and analysis” to draw on from previous studies for the relief line.

She defended the decision to recommend the project to the provincial government before settling on an approximate route, arguing that other aspects of the Ontario Line made it clear it was worth pursuing.

“At the very onset, we knew that extending the line further north and further west would attract additional riders and provide even more relief to other key transfer points in the existing network, such as Union and Eglinton,” she said, adding the change in alignment — which has attracted great opposition from Leslieville and Cabbagetown residents as the new route would destroy parks, homes and at least one community centre — was made primarily to better integrate the Ontario Line stop at East Harbour with a future GO station at the same location.

She said the agency is confident in the $11-billion cost estimate for the project, despite it being reached early in the planning process.

“Cost estimates throughout a project’s life-cycle are based on the best information available at a given point in time, and are updated as more details are known,” she said.

Aikins also said the level of secrecy around the project was not unusual.

“It is a normal part of our planning work to keep initial plans for a project confidential until the proper amount of rigour has gone into them,” she said.

The former Metrolinx official who spoke to the Star said they had concerns the project was rushed. The person estimated the agency effectively did work that would normally take nine months in the three months before Ford’s announcement.

“It certainly wasn’t following the normal chain of events,” they said.

“It’s essentially coming out of a consultant’s head and skipping through some phases. (Normally) you would look at what’s possible, what’s feasible, what should we actually take forward. Instead it looked like we were going to try to go to solutions very, very quickly.”

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s geography department who has studied the delivery of large transportation projects, said Metrolinx’s work on the Ontario Line raises concerns.

“This is an unusual way to plan a major multibillion-dollar transit project,” he said, citing the “level of secrecy” and “quick turnarounds” that have characterized the line’s development.

He warned that when projects are rushed and executed without full transparency, it increases the risk that costs will balloon as more detailed planning is done, and that the public will oppose the plan.

“These are the types of decisions that need to be made with careful deliberation and both with technical study and with public consultation,” Siemiatycki said. “And if that hasn’t happened, that can really challenge the viability of the project, the cost of the project, and the public legitimacy of the project.”

Ben Spurr

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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